The FCC has pushed out its review of AT&T's $1.9 billion bid to buy Qualcomm's valuable 700 MHz spectrum from its defunct Flo TV service as it considers the impact of the deal in light of AT&T's mega-merger with T-Mobile USA.
The agency said an evaluation of the relationship between the Flo TV deal and AT&T's proposed buyout of T-Mobile raised "a number of related issues," including "AT&T's aggregation of spectrum throughout the nation, particularly in overlapping areas."
"As a result, we have concluded that the best way to determine whether either or both of the proposed transactions serve the public interest is to consider them in a coordinated manner at this time, without prejudice to independent treatment at a later date," FCC wireless bureau chief Rick Kaplan wrote in a letter sent yesterday to AT&T and Qualcomm.
The agency is not formally consolidating its review of the two transactions, as called for by many AT&T competitors opposed to the operator's merger with T-Mobile.
"In fact, should circumstances change, we retain the flexibility to conclude our reviews independently," an FCC spokesman said.
The FCC typically sets an informal 180-day deadline to review transactions, but may stop the clock on its review process if it decides in needs additional time.
Kaplan's letter to AT&T and Qualcomm was posted on the 180th day of the agency's review of the proposed Flo TV purchase. AT&T had pushed the agency last week to speed up its approval process of the deal.
An AT&T spokeswoman said the company was "pleased" the FCC decided not to officially consolidate its review of the deals.
"We are pleased that the Commission has rejected calls to officially consolidate the two deals and has expressly preserved the ability for the Qualcomm application to be resolved in advance of the T-Mobile application," she said. "We remain confident that the FCC will approve the license transfers as consistent with the public interest."
Sprint government affairs executive Vonya McCann called the FCC's move "reasonable" because of the complexity of the deals.
"Given the complexity of the regulatory review of both proposed transactions, it's a reasonable step for the FCC to coordinate the two reviews," McCann said. "The proposed transactions would produce game-changing effects on consumers and on competition in the wireless market."
Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, a vocal opponent to the merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, had a slightly different take.
"It doesn't matter whether both transactions are in the same docket; the fact that the Bureau will consider them together in any manner is a strong statement," Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said.
Public Knowledge and several other public interest groups including Consumers Union, Free Press, the Media Access Project and the New America Foundation, asked the FCC in April to consolidate its reviews of AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile and the operator's purchase of Qualcomm's Flo TV spectrum.
The FCC has not decided whether it will coordinate its review of AT&T's other recent 700 MHz purchases with the T-Mobile merger and the Flo TV purchase.
AT&T has moved in recent months to snap up more than 40 individual licenses in the 700 MHz band, all of which are still pending FCC approval. The operator plans to use the spectrum to supplement its LTE rollout.